Holub, Josef (translated by Michael Hofmann). 2005. An innocent soldier. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books. ISBN 0-439-62771-0
This is the story of a young farmhand who is forced into the army before he is of age in place of the farmer’s only living son. The poor boy faces many hardships because of it. The other soldiers make fun of the crack in his voice. One particular sergeant seems to have it out for him and bullies him just for the fun of it. And all of this is on top of the horrible lack of supplies due to Napoleon’s bad planning. However, the young soldier becomes friends with a young lieutenant and together, the two survive and return home heros.
The quick start of the book hooks the reader immediately. Though the pace slows down a bit and the British translation shows itself occasionally through phrases like “cheeky” and being “kitted out,” the reader is driven to keep reading because there seems to be one troubling event after another. Of course, the troubles are to be expected when Napoleon assembles the largest of military forces ever seen, the Grande Armée, but doesn’t plan ahead enough to provide the supplies needed for such a long and arduous task of waging war against the Russians. The good-natured humor of the main character telling the story also adds to the charm of the novel.
From a cultural standpoint, one learns about German society through the eyes of an obedient, trusting, uneducated farmhand who through various circumstances becomes the loyal servant and friend of a count turned lieutenant. We learn that German noblemen must be concerned about their honor to the point of challenging each other to duels – something with which the common soldier is glad he never had to concern himself. The book also introduces us to a bit of the Russian landscape has the book describes the short summers, harsh winters, and wooden houses with copper roofs that the “red-clad Cossacks and Bashkirs” lived in. More than anything, this book sheds light on what it was like to be a soldier in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. The author’s descriptions of the harsh and desperate conditions will make even the proudest of military men question the good of war.
Overall, this is a great read! One can not help but be pulled into the world of this “Innocent Soldier” and hold his breath in hopes that he and his beloved wellborn lieutenant make it out of the terrible war alive.
From Jennifer Hubert (Booklist, Nov. 15, 2005 (Vol. 102, No. 6))
In this unevenly translated novel, a teenaged farmhand is forced to take part in Napoleon's ill-fated Russian campaign. Unsuspecting orphan Adam is handed over to recruiting officers by the farmer he works for as a replacement for the man's drafted son. Assigned to the horse artillery, Adam leads a miserable life until the blue-blooded Lieutenant Konrad Klara requisitions him to become his personal servant. The young men head toward Moscow, but are soon overcome by hunger and disease. After witnessing many wartime atrocities, the two survive the suicide march out of Russia and form an unlikely bond that transcends class and station. Other than a brief historical note, little background information is given, assuming much prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and though the novel is evocative in places, the translation is replete with odd-sounding phrases and awkward transitions. The book's greatest strength is the friendship: a bond formed by two motherless boys from different classes who find common cause in an unwinnable war. Category: Books for Older Readers--Fiction. 2005, Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99. Gr. 8-11.
From Susan Shaver (Library Media Connection, March 2006)
Readers are sure to become quickly engrossed in this captivating story told from the point of view of a young farmhand. It is the middle of the night when young Adam is awakened, fed, and taken by the farmer he works for and driven into town. There he suddenly finds himself standing alone before a group of officers who draft and initiate him into the harsh realities of military life as a member of Napoleon's Grande Armee in the place of the farmer's son. This is the beginning of what seems to be an unending journey of amazing hardships, struggles for survival, loss of innocence, and enduring friendship. Suffering at the never ending bullying of Sergeant Krauter, Adam thinks of escape, but is saved from this harassment by Lieutenant Konrad, a young aristocrat in need of a personal assistant who requests Adam's service. Together the two young men travel across Europe facing the challenges of war; fighting battles; surviving bitter cold, lack of water, and supplies; overcoming near starvation, disease, and theft; and dealing with Sergeant Krauter. Over time the barriers of class are broken and both young men survive the terrible realities of war, while developing a deep and lasting friendship. It does not take long to become engaged in this quickly developing personalized story of war, feel sympathy for the characters, or experience the growing friendship of Adam and Konrad. Recommended. 2005, Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic), 240pp., $16.99 hc. Ages 11 to 16.
From Beth E. Andersen (VOYA, February 2006 (Vol. 28, No. 6))
Sixteen-year-old Adam Feuchter trusts the cruel farmer who is his master and is stunned to discover that the farmer has tricked Adam into being conscripted into Napoleon's infamous half-a-million-strong Grand Armee, replacing Georg, the farmer's son. Napoleon's catastrophic march into Russia is a historical reality that Holub brings to life in blisteringly honest detail. Adam becomes the target of a crazed sergeant, bent on killing the young boy, until an aristocrat officer, Lieutenant Konrad Klara, takes Adam under his wing. Using their cunning, honed by a frantic desperation to stay alive despite the crushing obstacles of a terrible war plan, deadly weather, and unconventional combat methods used by the enemy, the two young men are among the few who make it to Moscow and back. Holub, who was a teenaged soldier during World War II, published his first book at age sixty-seven. He is the recipient of two prestigious European literary awards-the Peter HSrtling Prize for Children's Literature and the Znrich Children' Book Prize-and should, by rights, receive more accolades for this unforgiving look at the shockingly brutal reality of warfare and its terrible cost. Highly recommended, it can easily take its place next to Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2005, Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 231p., $16.99. Ages 12 to 18.
This book can be used in connection with many lessons. The most obvious is of course Napoleon’s march to Russia. It can also be used to teach similes such as, “He’s as whipped as a little doggie.” The book can also be used to teach military language such as bivouacked, howitzers, sergeant, lieutenant, etc. Finally, the story provides a wonderful reader response or literature circle prompt about stealing with the line, “No, I convince myself, it wasn’t theft, it was necessity. After all, this is war. Other laws apply.”